Defining digital curriculum in a new era of learning

How do we best support teachers and school leaders in implementing digital curriculum for the long haul?

Even after the events of the past two years, the definition of what constitutes digital curriculum is still a source of disagreement for some. Misalignment among educator roles regarding curriculum has far from disappeared, and in some cases, the gap has grown even wider, according to new research.

While the majority of educators are more optimistic about the state of their curriculum this year than before COVID-19, the theme of misalignment persists in several areas, including:

Quality of Curriculum

Perhaps intuitively, roles closer to the students (teachers, IT staff, school leadership) find it easier to measure curricular efficacy compared to other roles since they interact with students regularly. District leadership and curriculum or team leads tend to measure curriculum more quantitatively, based on numbers reflected in test and exam scores.

For the second year in a row, roles farther from the classroom (district leaders, school leaders) rated their own curriculum higher than those closer to the classroom (teachers and IT staff). Teachers were the most pessimistic about their materials, rating them at an average of 6.43, roughly 10 percent lower than the district leaders, who ranked their materials the highest.

When teachers and school/district leaders lack alignment on curricular quality, students suffer. This discrepancy is a testament to the fact that district and school leaders need better data and insight into the classroom. The first step towards addressing this issue? Believing in the power of digital. Districts must house their core curriculum in a manner that enables them to collect data on adoption, usage, and pacing. Dynamic digital curriculum management gives school and district leaders immediate access to key data around student performance and curricular fidelity.

Curricular Fidelity

What do we mean by curricular fidelity? When teachers follow their curriculum and its resources to the letter, they are implementing it with the highest fidelity. When teachers introduce outside resources into the curriculum, they implement with lower fidelity.

Roles farther from the classroom think their curriculum is being used with greater fidelity than those working directly with the curriculum. Each classroom is full of unique learners across a broad spectrum of personalities and skills. Teachers are the ones who are toiling over the internet to find supplemental materials to bring their lessons home, and they are the ones who are best-suited to determine how to help their individual students thrive. This may require reaching above and beyond a prescribed curriculum in order to give every student the best opportunity to succeed.

In the survey, district leaders and principals rated curriculum fidelity higher than teachers, IT staff, and curriculum roles did, on a scale of 1 to 10. In roles farther from the classroom, there is a predisposition (if not an obligation) to attribute classroom growth and success to “capital-C” Curriculum, even if it means overlooking the work that teachers are putting in behind the scenes to bring that curriculum to life for their students. When these efforts are not acknowledged, it’s difficult to say whether curriculum decisions are being made on the best data available.

Most Important Characteristics of Curriculum

When choosing curriculum post-pandemic, “Engaging for students” became a more important characteristic than the pre-COVID preference of “standards aligned” for nearly every role. However, there is misalignment in the characteristics that pertain to the day-to-day planning and delivery of curriculum. District leaders placed significantly less emphasis on differentiation strategies than other roles; less than 20 percent of district leader respondents identified differentiation strategies as a factor in choosing curriculum, compared to 40 percent of teachers and 35 percent of curriculum roles.

Instead, district leaders placed more emphasis on rigor, supporting the idea that district leaders view curriculum in terms of its ability to perform, rather than viewing it as one small piece of student performance. District leaders tend to overemphasize curricular fidelity as the end-all-be-all to classroom learning, when in fact nuances such as differentiation strategies and cultural responsiveness are what really create “aha!” moments for  students.

Like curricular fidelity and quality, this misalignment can be countered with more visibility into the classroom. Understanding how differentiation and student engagement have an impact on performance can help drive curricular decisions that will benefit students more quickly and efficiently than would making these decisions in the dark.

Concerns about Curriculum

Unsurprisingly, the greatest concern about curriculum in 2021 for teachers, curriculum roles, and district leaders was “the need for internet connection.” But for school leaders and IT staff, the greatest concern was “too many tools.” It appears that across school districts, the highest concerns about curriculum roll up into the question of “how might we reach students and parents this school year?”

These neighboring concerns point to a more fascinating and crucial trend in K-12 education. In an era of post-pandemic teaching and learning, concerns about internet access and too many technological tools go hand in hand with the need for one-stop-shop dynamic curriculum management.

Having to use different platforms to communicate with students and parents, assign and grade work, and plan and deliver lessons puts a nearly insurmountable burden on teachers, who must become classroom experts on every platform their students and parents may have to interact with. Being able to consolidate tools does a great service to teachers, students, and parents, who only have to learn to troubleshoot one platform instead of twenty.

Excessive edtech tools also exacerbate the fatigue that teachers face in making decisions for their students. The process of consulting multiple tools in order to paint a cohesive picture of student performance makes it more difficult for teachers to be nimble in instructional and curricular adjustments.

What Constitutes “Digital”

While curriculum has become far more digital, opinions over what constitutes digital curriculum are still not reconciled. Nearly half of those who report using digital curriculum are actually describing static curriculum, such as downloadable documents and PDFs stored on a cloud or school network. This does little to enhance the actual curriculum – it merely changes where they access it. And in some cases, increases the workload on teachers unpacking the content.

Differences of opinion between educators and leadership on curriculum quality, implementation, and key characteristics is a major issue in education today. School districts are actively investing in high quality core curriculum to accelerate learning and increase student outcomes. However, the classroom implementation of these materials is generally cumbersome, complex, and requires extensive professional learning. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, many school districts struggled to implement their high quality curricula of choice with fidelity. As the growth of so many edtech tools continues, districts should look to a digital solution that enables them to deploy, implement, and measure the implementation of curriculum in real-time.

These areas of misalignment indicate a lack of attention towards digital curriculum and curriculum management. After two school years of crisis planning for the pandemic, educators are likely certain that technology will follow them back into the classroom but have yet to explore past the tools they deployed in haste last March, without training or support.

The question is not whether or not digital curriculum is here to stay; it now becomes: “how do we best support teachers and school leaders in implementing digital curriculum for the long haul?” A truly digital curriculum management platform brings visibility to the four spheres of curriculum alignment (intended, enacted, assessed, and learned), so leaders have more transparency, teachers have more autonomy, and students have more equitable experiences. Investing in digital technology designed for the intersection of curriculum, instruction, and assessment ensures that new tech adoptions are able to be sustained for years to come.

eSchool Media Contributors